Restaurant Review: Babaluu’s Cocina Cubana
I love yuca
By: Bill Kohlhaase
Published online: Friday, October 12, 2012
Appeared in: Pasateimpo
When Amaury Torres set out from Havana
Babaluu’s Cocina Cubana
3 ½ chiles
3810 N.M. 14 505-471-1100
Lunch noon-2 p.m. Wednesdays-Fridays, noon-4 p.m. Saturdays; brunch noon-6 p.m., Sundays; dinner 5:30-8 p.m Wednesdays & Thursdays, 5:30-9 p.m. Fridays & Saturdays; closed Mondays & Tuesdays
Noise level: moderate to party hardy
In short order:
Amaury Torres’ Babaluu’s Cocina Cubana
is a remote outpost of Caribbean influence,
serving fine Cuban-inspired dishes with
nouvelle flair. Lunches show the most
island influence, and weekend evenings,
sometimes with live music, offer a lively
party atmosphere. Roast pork and seafood
rule the menu with fried yuca, plantains,
and black-bean soups all done exceptionally
well. Service is efficient though seemingly
chaotic when busy, relaxed and friendly
when not. Recommended: Cuban panini,
sautéed clams, crab empanadas, breaded
halibut Parmesan, shrimp ajillo, yuca frita,
green-chile sopa, and guava galette.
*Ratings range from 0 to 4 chiles, including half chiles.
This reflects the reviewer's experience with regard
to food and drink, atmosphere, service, and value
on a raft in
1994 he probably didn’t expect to land in New Mexico.
But here he is, after stints in Miami and Portland, Oregon,
opening his own restaurant, the excellent Babaluu’s Cocina
Cubana, in rural San Marcos. You’d have to look hard to find
a more unlikely location for Cuban dining; but then the food
isn’t authentically or strictly Cuban. Torres spent his time in
Portland working in the city’s sophisticated restaurant scene,
and his ever-changing dinner menu reflects nouvelle as well
as Caribbean and New Mexican influence. Lunches, with
their Cuban sandwiches (though not quite like the pressed
Cuban sandwiches expatriates build for their American
clientele in cities across the country), fried yuca (cassava
root), and black-bean salsa, harbor the most island influence.
The place sits just off Turquoise Trail across from the Lone
Butte General Store. It’s easy to miss, the entry nondescript.
But drive around to the other side of the building and there’s
a bright mural depicting a Cuban street scene and a couple of
palm trees silhouetting the entrance. It’s an attractive setting.
Sunsets are stunning, visible from the patio, and there’s an
outdoor dance floor in the works. Dining here can some-
times mean more fun than you bargained for.
The first time we traveled to Babaluu’s we followed not
one but two large looping rainbows. No, we didn’t find a
pot of gold — the rainbows seemed anchored further south
— but we did get a cup of gazpacho worth treasuring.
There was no music that night (infrequently, a guitarist and
percussionist entertain, and dancing is encouraged), but
the scene was still lively, even chaotic, as servers rushed
between the dining room and patio, and dishes were
whisked out of the kitchen by anyone available. Hostess
Mary Torres, the owner’s wife, claims an affinity with
Lucille Ball (you’ll see Lucy’s photo near the entrance), and
the scramble sometimes resembles an I Love Lucy sketch.
The rustic dining room has plank floors and a large stone
fireplace hosting fat candles. The room can feel tight when
crowded, and don’t be surprised if you’re bumped by a
server as they hurry by. It’s all part of the fun.
You can check Babaluu’s website — the weekend dinner
menu is usually posted on Thursday — to know what to
expect. That first Saturday visit was a joy, starting with a
savory pair of crab empanadas matched with a spirited
mango sweet-and-sour sauce, and a garlicky bowl of
steamed clams swimming in a complex broth with white
wine, peppers, and herbs, perfect for dunking the home-
made Cuban bread. The unusual chilled green gazpacho
was rich with avocado and slightly tangy. A summer salad
entrée was a heaping bowl of greens and peaches, roasted
pecans, and blue cheese sweetly dressed with a raspberry
dressing (Babaluu gets its seasonal fresh, organic fruit and
vegetables from the nearby Synergia Ranch). A lightly
breaded halibut Parmesan was a standout, its crisp coat
tastefully seasoned, its insides flakey and flavorful. Havana
Seafood Delight, a large bowl of clams, prawns, sea bass, and
crimini mushrooms in the same broth that came with the
clams, was spiked with fresh pesto. The roast pork seemed
dry in comparison to the well-marinated, shredded Cuban
pork we were familiar with but came alive in a dusky
barbecue sauce that carried mango and whole cherries.
On a quiet Sunday evening visit, accompanying dishes were
the focus. Soupy black beans were served in a cup. Stirring
in jasmine rice gave them texture. Our only complaint
with the fried yuca was that there wasn’t more. A scoop
of maduros (mature plantains) shredded and spiked with
other vegetables was uninteresting and in need of a lift.
Best was the green chile stew, not thick with chile but full
of potatoes and shredded pork and deliciously spicy. The
beef brochette was smoky from the grill and perfectly done;
shrimp ajillo were delightfully garlicky.
Lunches here are leisurely affairs. The Cuban sandwich
had first-rate components, the havarti cheese gracing the
house-roasted pork and ham, all just moist enough to
contrast with the crispy bread. The muffuletta sandwich
adds a spunky tapenade and salty capicola. Sandwiches
offer a chance to try some of the unusual sodas offered,
including the deeply malty Malta or the Iron Beer, not a
beer at all but a fruity soda that hides its copious sugars
behind a wall of flavor. Desserts are standout, the orange
flan putting a citrusy twist on a favorite, but especially the
guava galette, tart enough that you’ll need a bit of the crispy
pastry to even out the flavor. Want a special treat? Ask the
bus boy for a dance. You won’t believe his moves.
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